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Customer success – What's in a name? Part two


In the second part of his customer success series, Alex Monaghan discusses the preparation needed to succeed. 

17th Oct 2023

The first of this series of articles discussed the purpose of customer success, which might seem obvious but is often lost among business priorities. This second article looks at preparing for customer success: how to prepare your organisation to deliver customer success effectively, for your customers and for your bottom line. 

The rest of the series will focus on measuring customer success, engaging for customer success, and delivering customer success – which is, of course, what we all want to achieve.

Preparing for customer success

customer success doesn’t just happen. Like most worthwhile things, it needs preparation. This is where many customer success programs go wrong: they work hard to prepare materials, processes and timelines, and then they expect customers to follow these and buy into a vision which they do not share.

I recommend that companies prepare all their customer success collateral for use in a flexible way.

Instead, I recommend that companies prepare all their customer success collateral for use in a flexible way to suit the needs and preferences of each customer. Think of it like planning a date – you need to be ready to make a good impression, but you don’t want to scare the customer by demanding too much commitment. On the other hand, if the customer wants to move fast, make sure your house is in order, and you are ready with a full onboarding package and all the necessities for a long-term relationship.

This second post in our series on customer success provides advice on how to be ready for each customer’s different expectations of a relationship.

Here’s a list of things you should prepare specifically for customer success:

  1. A vision – do you have one? What is it? Is it generally known and agreed?

The vision for customer success should describe what you are trying to achieve. It may also describe what benefits a customer will derive or what the characteristics of a gold standard customer might be. Some of my previous employers have expressed their vision in simple terms, ranging from the ambitious “improving the customer experience on Planet Earth” to the more realistic “making payments convenient and secure” and the straightforward “we keep the lights on”.

A vision should make sense internally and externally.

B2C organisations tend to put more thought into their vision, sometimes too much: “I’m lovin’ it” and “just do it” have a punchiness and yet a vagueness which seems to work for McDonald’s and Nike, while “Vorsprung durch Technik” (BMW) and “the world’s local bank” (HSBC) are both clear and aspirational. A vision should make sense internally and externally and might be personalised based on, e.g. the size of the organisation involved or the products and services they have chosen. Visions may also change – sadly, HSBC, for instance, has been forced to reduce its aspirations.

  1. A value model for the customer – you may have described value during the sales process, and if so, the reality should measure up to that description.

The customer will certainly be expecting to realise any promised value. Customer success should show the path to that value and perhaps some additional value along the way. Business cases for further investment might also be included. Bear in mind that the model needs to be flexible enough to match the customer’s reality. Some customers cannot cut staff numbers, or they might not be able to share data with offshore providers. These factors need to be reflected in the value model. Like other aspects of customer success, the value model should be personalised for each customer, scaled and tailored to their needs.

  1. A value model for the supplier – it’s also important to know what you expect from the relationship, although you might not share this in detail with the customer. 

Whether this deal is a whale or a sprat to catch a mackerel, you should have a model of what value it brings to you as the supplier and how that value can be achieved. How hard do you need to push? How fast do you expect the customer to progress? What counts as success for you, as well as for the customer? Document this for each customer.

  1. A maturity model and metrics – it's important to know how the customer is progressing and how this relates to the maturity of your relationship.

I think the Crawl>Walk>Run>Fly model is a useful metaphor – and it works. Customers appreciate that they will crawl to start with, and they will need a great deal of help and support until they find their feet. Once they are walking, they may still want you to hold their hand – or they may resist and need to be persuaded. When customers are up and running on their own, the role of customer success is more as a coach, improving best practices and perhaps setting new challenges. A customer who is flying will not need your input until they land – but the landing may be bumpy! Be prepared with metrics for each stage of maturity, and adapt your customer success engagement accordingly. Know what customers need at each stage and ensure that they get it whenever possible.

  1. A training programme – this should relate to the maturity model. It should be clearly described and closely tracked, with sign-off or certification processes.

Almost no enterprise sale is really plug-and-play, but the amount of training required is variable. Some products need little guidance and training. Others need a lot, so be aware of what this deal’s requirements are and make sure you do as much as possible to deliver against those. I have seen customers who want as much training as possible, and customers who want no training at all, as well as everything in between. The customer is not always right, but it’s not always possible to tell them this. Sometimes, you just have to let them put their hand in the fire and be ready with ice and sympathy. The question of whether training is chargeable is another tricky one: consider the value to you and to the customer and make a judgement. The question of how training should be delivered is one for another article, but like everything else in customer success, it should add value, and it should be personalised if possible. There are few things worse than telling a customer they need training and then delivering a course where they see no added value for their business.

  1. A discovery process – discovery is key to the sales process, but it’s also an important part of customer success.

While it makes sense to introduce customer success before the sale, you almost certainly don’t want to delay or complicate things by trying to do customer success discovery before the deal is won. However, once the customer has signed, one of the first steps should be to discover what counts as success for them and who decides if the relationship is successful. This information should be documented alongside the discovery information from the sales team. Perhaps you are dealing with different stakeholders now, and perhaps the success criteria have changed, in which case Customer Success needs to agree on the new criteria with the customer so that there are no surprises down the line. A happier scenario is where success criteria have already been defined, perhaps during a pilot or POC project: these can then be verified with any new stakeholders and modified as necessary.

  1. A regular review process – documented success criteria feed into this, and success should be tracked internally.

How often these criteria are reviewed with the customer is a matter of negotiation – the cadence has to suit the customer. There should be a clear process for carrying out a review and also an escalation process if success criteria are not being met so that the situation can be reviewed with urgency. These processes and the document templates associated with them should be discussed with the customer and personalised based on any feedback. The processes should include documentation of the outcomes, to be shared with a distribution list. Expectations of who will attend the actual review sessions need to be realistic: getting more than three people to a meeting is probably a challenge, and as with everything in customer success, these sessions need to add value for each customer attendee.

  1. An engagement model with the customer – who, how, when, and why do you engage?

Engagement is complex, and it is the subject of another article in this series, but here’s a quick overview. Everyone wants a piece of the customer – marketing, sales, product, and more – so the first question is, who owns the customer post-sale? My suggestion is that this should be customer success, but only if you are taking CS seriously and only if there is openness to involve other teams when appropriate. I have two guiding principles for what is appropriate: any engagement should add value for the customer and should advance the relationship in terms of value, maturity, or shared vision. An engagement model should specify how customer engagement is planned, communicated internally and externally, tracked, and measured.

Perhaps this preparation for customer success is simpler than you thought – or perhaps it looks like a living nightmare. There is a lot of detail, but it boils down to three key points: 

  • Understand the customer
  • Do what is right for the customer
  • Document everything. Twice

For some suppliers, these will be a natural part of doing business.

In conclusion

In summary, there is a lot to prepare - and preparation isn’t the end of the process. Almost all your resources will need to be personalised and agreed upon for each customer. This is a conversation which will help to build the relationship. In many ways, the journey is more important than the destination, but the destination should at least be agreed upon and documented. Try to persuade the customer that you know what is good for them – you have probably done this many times before – but be prepared to listen. If necessary, change your expectations to match the customer’s: after all, it’s their perception of success that matters.

We can always improve by listening to our customers!

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